Don't take your soldiers for granted
“Mera pait… Sir… mera pait… mera pait,” my eyes widened and as my hands touched his stomach I was struck by horror.
*Saf Shikan post is one of the few posts at Siachen glacier that is inaccessible by animal transport. Hence, all the transport of ammunition and food items is done through man-portering, mostly because the gradient of the post is impassable by mules and because the approach to the post is over looked by the enemy sitting just a few meters away.
Saf Shikan is located 18000 feet above mean sea level at a gradient of approximately 30 to 40 degrees. An officer’s 6x3x4 feet (LxWxH) igloo, shelter made from discarded jerry-cans and PSP sheets, and a 9x6x5 feet shell-proof bunker makes up Saf Shikan post. It’s not that we couldn’t build more igloos or bunkers there, but the fact that the area, approximately 25x10 feet, occupied by these three compartments, is all that is feasible at that height. A bit further away from these locations and it’s either a sheer fall into the abyss or an Indian sniper’s bullet in your chest.
The movement to and from a bunker or igloo to another one is also interesting. A high altitude rope runs along all the three housings which is to be held during ascend or descend even within the post due to the sloping ground. This is where officers and their men reside for two months of their lives.
With this short premise, I shall now share my experience while I was there as an artillery observer. What many do not realise is that Saf Shikan is an important post. Communication issues are a common phenomenon at Siachen due to avalanches and high altitude camping. Hence, it was decided that the old telecom wire utilised for line-communication would be replaced by a better and more robust cable which can sustain the harsh weather and frequent slides. Resultantly, a team of five men were given the uphill task (excuse the pun) of laying the cable over a stretch of approximately 35 kilometres.
In the rear areas, they would only move from one post to the other during certain hours of the day and night while trying to stay out of the enemy’s line of vision as that is the appropriate time to maintain camouflage. It took them almost a month to reach the base camp from where it would take another week to reach the post.
Just to put things in perspective, at Siachen you measure distance in terms of time and not lengths. The air is so thin that you cannot drink water immediately after getting up as you feel short of breath. Even walking takes great effort; climbing a mountain while carrying weight is a different story altogether. If fired upon, instead of running to take cover, it’s better to stay and duck wherever you are as you might get lucky and dodge the bullets since running can cause your brain and lungs to suck upon its own fluids and cause sudden death.
The men would carry a bundle of cable, weighing around 25 kilograms, for a couple of kilometres, dump it there and then go back to fetch another bundle to dump it even further, so on and so forth. After a colossal effort, the cable had now reached the foot of the mountain. Till now, the enemy couldn’t see our movement but we had to carry on during a moonless night, that too during immense fog and a bad blizzard. The fact that it was a dark night covered with heavy snowfall ended up aiding us as it blinds the enemy’s night vision devices, which otherwise would pick up our movement and the enemy could target us with small arms and artillery. We had to be patient and wait as our men had already been fired upon twice in the last three weeks due to visibility.
Then came the night when it snowed like hell and the team was told to climb Saf Shikan. As was the norm before any movement to Saf Shikan, all the neighbouring posts were made to stand guard with weapons hot to counter any engagement by Indians.
We, too, stood alert.
I, on the other hand, sat outside my igloo with my rifle and a night vision device looking down, struggling to find the approaching men amidst the snow storm. The team gave us a test call from the mountain base and I instructed them to keep sending their location as they climb up. After four hours, I began to see some movement down the slope. The team was just a few hundred meters from us yet it took them another two hours to reach us as the gradient short of the post was the steepest. While watching the men struggle through the storm and amidst the fear of becoming a sitting duck if the enemy picked their movement, those two hours passed in a blink of an eye.
Then came feint shouts of “Allah ho Akbar, Allah ho Akbar” from both sides, as was the norm when a team was about to reach. When I saw the lead-man, I extended my arm out to pull him up but as he held my hand, I almost flung off the post. It was surprising to see him being so heavy. I placed my rifle down and pulled the guy up with both my hands as it took my entire strength to do so. As I hugged and patted him, I said,
“Shabash! Shabash! Bus pohanch gaye! Zindabad.”
(Well done! Well done! You’re here! Zindabad)
But he was panting badly. In return, he whispered something which I couldn’t comprehend at first as the blizzard was still strong and everything was hazy. I, too, was chilled to my bone. So I placed my ears near his lips and he whispered again,
“Mera pait… Sir… mera pait… mera pait, Sir.”
(My stomach, Sir, my stomach… my stomach, Sir)
My eyes widened and as a reflex action my hands went towards his stomach and all of a sudden I was struck by horror. He had tied the cable to his stomach and the entire weight of the hundreds of metres of cable was resting on his stomach!
The climb to Saf Shikan is roped- climb. How is one supposed to carry a cable when both your hands are struggling to keep you on your feet?
I immediately held the cable tied to his stomach to give him some relief, but the counter pull was so strong that I slipped off my feet, so I called for help. It took three men to untie the knot and hold the cable. We tied the cable to the 200 litre barrel we used to keep topped up with snow which would later be used as water once the snow melted. But even that flipped. We then tied the cable to something as strong as the will of the soldier who had carried it all this way.
These are our men – dedicated, motivated, selfless and brave. It truly is an honour.
I can just imagine the agony those men, and especially that soldier in particular, had been through while they carried that cable to the post through the wilderness of the Siachen glacier. It’s not because your taxes were short or as the rhetoric goes, the leadership ‘failed’ them, but they do it because it has to be done and carried out with precision within the allocated time and resources.
Even though the soldiers were tired and fatigued, they had to travel back to the base camp the same night. I requested the sector commander to let them stay the night but my requested was turned down. This was refused primarily for two reasons; first being the current lack of space at the post and second, because God only knows when the combination of a moonless night and bad weather would grace us so we could have movement again. So the men went back and reached the base after a hike of four hours.
Regardless of their dedication and sacrifice, these men aren’t giving as much as their counterparts are sacrificing today in North Waziristan during the military operation, Zarb-e-Azb.
*Name of the post has been changed and certain details omitted for the obvious reasons.
*The pulley system previously installed at Saf Shikan didn’t work.